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I used to work with a woman who troubled me deeply. I don't think she ever understood how much she troubled me, unless she could feel the breeze pick up each time I strode past her cubicle. This is the only way I could bear passing her workstation on my way to the office kitchen, by quickening my pace as if trying to motor past an old, haunted cemetery and escape its phantom grip.

I had to speed along that way. I couldn't make eye contact, because to look at her was to stare in the face of every error in judgment, and every reservation, I've ever made based on some a just-below-the-surface but not-quite-articulated lapse in self-esteem. Her cubicle was her permanent home, an office right on the floor, in plain view. She could be at her company for 25 more years and she will never be moved into a more desirable space - an interior office-crate - unless she became miraculously grandfathered in during a deadly viral outbreak. She will never ask for a raise, I thought, and she will never interview competitively; she might not even know how. She never imagined herself there, taking up space like she was ordered through a STAPLES catalog, but somehow here she is and she isn't going anywhere else. In my mind she had always been a living (and possibly breathing, though i've never heard any) monument to permanence through defeat.

And each time I caught a glimpse of her, I went momentarily cold. If you have friends who read only the parts of scientific articles they find interesting - the first paragraph and pull quotes - they've probably spoken to you at some point about how humans will eventually just become machines that get worn down, and replaced with new parts. Combine genetic engineering with highly specialized mood altering drugs and you've got a great headstart on a fleshy robot race of administrative automatons. Well, my co-worker was like an alpha version of that. Her hair style looked a bit like a wig stolen from a Lane Bryant mannequin. Her features seemed airbrushed on, barely making an impression in the skin of her face. She never speak unless spoken to and even then it was basic artificial intelligence; all reaction, little action. She never moved unless interrupted. I'm sure she could count sixty perfect seconds out loud, without ever looking at a clock. I expect her genitals smell like the inside of new Tupperware.

She became a dangerous source of fascination for me, and eventually I decided I wanted to understand her, and put a human face on her to make her less mythic, frightening. I began quizzing many other employees about her. I would inquire about her official position within the company, or her general role as an employee, but no one could provide a straight answer - not even people who shared a fabric-covered cubicle wall with her. She was a mystery, like that abandoned desk that sits on the office floor for many months, or the door in your company that remained closed for so long you dismissed the idea that it could be concealing anything, until one day you walk by it and notice it's open AND someone has been working behind it all along. She was like that.

Finally I started making a very conscious effort to make eye contact with her. I would give her a wink and a nod and, later, a short "hello" each time I encountered her in her cube home. When I would do this, she'd avert her eyes, and instead of returning my greetings, she would just lower her head and spread her fingers out over her keyboard lightly, as if feeling it out in darkness. I understood this anti-social behavior immediately. She liked being invisible, and I was blowing her cover, drawing heat.

WE FIRST MET ON 10.30.2003

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